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Ross Ulbricht
31-year old Ross Ulbricht will spend the rest of his life behind bars

Why the Silk Road founder's life sentence is bizarre

Ross Ulbricht has been given a life sentence with no chance of parole – a highly aggressive punishment motivated by a failing war on drugs

On Friday Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. His crime? Founding and running the online darknet marketplace Silk Road, a haven for illegal transactions, predominantly drugs. Under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, Ulbricht led the world into a new era of drug dealing, running a site where users could buy any substance imaginable and dealers could operate under radar.

While there have been six deaths linked to drugs bought from Silk Road, Ulbricht's sentence is unnecessarily brutal. Any accidental, early death is sad and tragic but to buy drugs online you must download Tor, work out how to buy Bitcoin and learn PGP encryption. It is actually not all that simple to buy drugs on darknet marketplaces, unless you have researched how to do it. Silk Road offered customers the chance to buy drugs privately and off the street. Ulbricht did not handle large quantities of illegal substances, just created the technology to facilitate transactions. Some think of him as a dangerous drug dealer, others as a purveyor of democracy.

Prior to sentencing, Ulbricht wrote a letter to Judge Katharine Forrest begging her to show leniency. "Please leave me my old age," he said. "Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead and a chance to redeeum myself in the free world before I meet my maker."

His pleas went unheard and Ulbricht's lawyer described the sentencing as "unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law.” I am not arguing that Ulbricht should walk free for his role in founding Silk Road, but this is an assault on liberty, one that appears grounded in the idea of punishment as performance. Ulbricht is being made an example of, having his freedom revoked to scare others, a futile and inhuman way to fritter away somebody's existence.

Whether we like to admit it or not, human beings are escapists with an unquenchable thirst for substances – no government will ever stop us getting fucked up. It's just something we do, see any Friday night in a British pub as an example of how we do it in a strangely socially acceptable fashion. The war on drugs is an embarrassing failure, a battle that no-one quite understands and one that will never be won. It is time to come to terms with that.

The FBI may have managed to shut down Silk Road, but numerous alternatives are active. Since Silk Road was taken offline, the amount of drugs available online has doubled. As one FBI agent puts it, "It's the equivalent of playing whack-a-mole". I've always thought (I could be wrong) that the highest aim of any prison sentence is to rehabilitate or to keep dangerous individuals out of society. Ulbricht would surely be no threat to Americans on release and will be given no chance to remodel his outlooks and use them in society. Sending him to jail for the rest of his life is senseless and throws a spotlight on a justice system that appears to prefer incarceration to the idea of reintegration.